Some companies have refused to sign a letter backing Boris Johnson’s Brexit compromise deal, Sky News learns.
Downing Street has urged the bosses of Britain’s biggest companies to publicly endorse Boris Johnson’s Brexit “compromise deal” just three weeks before the UK risks crashing out of the European Union.
Sky News can exclusively reveal that advisers to the prime minister have this week been canvassing support from business leaders for an open letter arguing that the uncertainty over Brexit “needs to end”.
Sources said that “a substantial number” of Britain’s most prominent companies had been contacted during the last week to gauge their interest in signing the letter.
They warned, however, that it might not be published because of executives’ reluctance to back its contents amid concerns about its “overtly political” message.
The letter, a copy of which has been seen by Sky News, strikes a more conciliatory tone than many of the PM’s public statements about a “do or die” Brexit on 31 October.
Sources said that that reflected the entrenched opposition among many big companies to a no-deal Brexit.
“For the last three-and-a-half years British business have [sic] laboured under great uncertainty – including being asked to make no-deal preparations more times than should have been necessary,” the letter says.
“Investment, employment and plans for the future have all suffered as a consequence.
“One way or another, this needs to end.
“Like the PM, we would much prefer to leave the EU with a deal.
“We therefore strongly welcome the fact that the prime minister has this week tabled a credible compromise proposal which has the prospect of obtaining the necessary support in parliament.
“Accordingly, we call upon all involved but especially the EU to come to the table and to reach agreement.
“There is a chance, it must not be squandered.”
One corporate figure who had been asked to sign the letter said there was “no way” he could do so, even in a personal capacity, arguing that it was impossible to judge whether the compromise deal floated by Mr Johnson was credible.
He added that it was also debatable whether the PM would indeed prefer to leave the EU with a deal.
The circulation of the open letter comes during a period of continuing tensions between the government and the business community, with persistent complaints that smaller companies in particular are not prepared for a no-deal departure.
A further example of the possible consequences of a hard Brexit came on Thursday when Nissan, the Japanese car-maker, provided a fresh warning about the impact of substantial tariffs on its vehicles
The effort to corral FTSE-100 chiefs into signing the letter will come just over two years after Mr Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, sparked fury among company bosses by asking them to publicly endorse her Brexit deal – which failed to gain sufficient support in the House of Commons on three occasions.
That letter was snubbed by dozens of bosses, and was eventually abandoned.
Mr Johnson’s efforts to woo bosses also comes as he seeks to repair relations with the private sector after he was overheard using an expletive to refer to the business community during his stint as foreign secretary.
Invitations to sign the letter are understood to have been circulated by Andrew Griffith, the former chief financial officer of Sky News’ parent company, who was drafted in by Mr Johnson as his chief business adviser, and James Sproule, a member of the Number 10 business advisory team.
In emails, recipients were told that the letter was slated for publication “in the next day or so” – raising questions about whether it would now see the light of day.
On Wednesday, the co-chairs of Number 10’s business councils met Mr Johnson for talks about domestic policy issues, as well as Brexit.
The meeting was attended by chiefs including Dave Lewis, the CEO of Tesco; Sir Ian Davis, chairman of Rolls Royce Holdings; Emma Walmsley, CEO of GlaxoSmithKline; and Baroness Vadera, chair of Santander UK.
In a readout of the talks provided by Number 10, the government said: “On Brexit, the prime minister reiterated that we want the UK to leave the EU with a deal when we depart on 31 October.
“The business secretary urged the co-chairs to support small businesses and those in their supply chain to get ready for Brexit at the end of the month.”
Responding to an enquiry about the business letter, a government spokesperson said: “The prime minister has been clear that we will be leaving the EU on 31 October- delivering on the will of the British people with no more delay and providing certainty to businesses across the UK.
“We want to do this with a deal, but the government and industry across the UK must be fully prepared to leave without one.
“We have been speaking to businesses of all sizes every day to encourage each of them to prepare for Brexit on 31 October – our priority is to ensure they have the help they need to get ready for Brexit and take advantage of the opportunities beyond.”
None of the businesses approached about signing the letter would comment formally on Thursday.